DIVING INTO THE SHALLOW END
The last snows of winter should have melted by now, which does not explain the snowflakes that drifted past my kitchen window yesterday. Still, the first mowing of the grass (and the second and the third) is under my belt. Can Memorial Day and the official start of the summer swim season be far behind? Will there even be a summer swim season?
The possible advent of the swim season got me thinking about – what else? – liability. Nationally, there are about 800 spinal cord injuries a year from swimmers — mostly young people — diving into shallow water. The idea that you ought to check the depth of the water before diving in is a pellucid as Bahamian waters. Yet diving accident victims and their families often litigate the issue anyway. Today’s case is an interesting application of the “open and obvious” doctrine.
The Koops, who were lakeside property owners, weren’t recreational users, because their property was open only to invited guests, not the public. So they had no immunity under Ohio’s recreational user statute. As invitees, their guests were owed ordinary care by the Koops – which included a warning of any dangers that weren’t open and obvious. When one guest ran across the dock and dove into 18-inch water — rendering himself a quadriplegic — he sued the Koops for negligence. The Court ruled that the danger was open and obvious.
Not to be deterred, Galinari argued he had been distracted by “attendant circumstances.” Not a bad argument: “attendant circumstances” can defeat the “open and obvious” doctrine. But such circumstances must divert the attention of the injured party, significantly enhance the danger of the defect, contribute to the injury, and be beyond the control of injured party. Attendant circumstances in the past have included such circumstances as time of day, lack of familiarity with the route taken, lighting conditions, and accumulation of ice. But here, the best the plaintiff could muster was that the water was inviting, other people were swimming in the lake, and there were no posted warnings. Not enough, the Court ruled, to excuse the young man from the simple precaution of checking water depth first.
Galinari v. Koop, 2007-Ohio-4540, 2007 Ohio App. LEXIS 4509, 2007 WL 2482673 (Ct.App. Clermont Co., Ohio, Sept. 4, 2007). In a tragic July 4 accident, 21-year old Nick Galinari dove off a dock into a shallow lake owned by Koop, severely injuring his spinal cord and rendering him a quadriplegic. Galinari was invited by his girlfriend, Kristin Bounds, to attend a family party hosted by Koops on their property.
The property included a small, man-made lake on which guests are permitted to swim, canoe, fish, and generally use for recreational purposes. On the shore of the lake, there was a ramp connected to a floating dock, all of which extends about 28 feet into the water. The water near the shoreline is quite shallow, fluctuating between approximately ankle-deep and knee-deep. Galinari and his girlfriend pitched a tent and then mingled with guests at the party for about 45 minutes. Galinari, Kristin, and Kristin’s sister then decided to go swimming. Kristin went into the lake while Galinari changed clothes. He then headed down the stairs to the ramp and floating dock to enter the water. He saw Kristin in the water near the end of the dock, but could not recall later if she was standing or swimming. Without stopping to check the depth of the water at the end of the dock, Galinari jogged to the end of the dock and attempted a “shallow dive” to the right of Kristin. The water where he dove was about 18 inches deep. He struck the bottom of the lake, severely injuring his spinal cord. There was no sign on the property, nor did anyone give any verbal warnings, about diving off of the dock due to the depth of the water.
Galinari sued the property owners for negligence for failure to warn him about a dangerous condition on their property. The owners moved for summary judgment, arguing that they were under no duty to warn Galinari of something as open and obvious as the shallow lake. The trial court granted the Koops summary judgment, agreeing that the shallow water was an open and obvious condition and that they therefore had no duty to warn Galinari about a danger which he could have discovered through ordinary inspection. Galinari appealed.
Held: Galinari lost. he contended that despite the known dangers involved in diving, the question of the Koops’ negligence in failing to warn him of the shallow water required jury evaluation. He argued that he was a social guest on Koops’ property and that they breached a duty of care in failing to warn him of the dangers of diving off of the dock into their lake.
The Court disagreed, holding that in order to establish a cause of action for negligence, Galinari had to first show the existence of a duty. A social host owes his invited guest the duty to exercise ordinary care not to cause injury to his guest by any act of the host or by any activities carried on by the host while the guest is on the premises. This includes warning the guest of any condition of the premises known to the host and which a person of ordinary prudence and foresight in the position of the host should reasonably consider dangerous, if the host has reason to believe that the guest does not know and will not discover the dangerous condition.
However, a property owner owes no duty to warn invitees of dangers which are open and obvious. The rationale for this “open and obvious” doctrine is that the nature of the hazard serves as its own warning, and invitees then have a corresponding duty to take reasonable precautions to avoid dangers that are patent or obvious. In determining whether a condition is open and obvious, the determinative question is whether the condition is discoverable or discernible by one who is acting with ordinary care under the circumstances. This determination is an objective one: a dangerous condition does not actually have to be observed by the claimant to be an open-and-obvious condition under the law.
Here, the Court held, it is clear that the depth of water at the end of the Koops’ dock was a discoverable condition. Kristin was standing in the water near the end of the dock when Galinari dove in. The water on that day was at or below her knees. The lake bottom was clearly visible from the floating dock where Galinari dove. Galinari presented no evidence justifying any reason to believe that the water may have been deeper where he dove. He hadn’t been told he could dive from the dock and that he hadn’t seen anyone dive from that dock before him. Kristin was the only person he recalled seeing in the water as he jogged forward along the ramp and dove off of the dock. Based on this evidence, the Court said, the water was a discoverable condition by someone exercising reasonable care under the circumstances. Sadly, the Court said, if Galinari had merely looked at the water at the end of the dock, or stepped into the water to determine its depth, he would have easily determined that the lake was too shallow for diving. However, he took no precautionary measures prior to diving into the lake.
But Galinari argued that despite the open and obvious danger created by the shallow water, the doctrine of attendant circumstances precluded summary judgment. Attendant circumstances are an exception to the open and obvious doctrine and refer to distractions that contribute to an injury by diverting the attention of the injured party and reduce the degree of care an ordinary person would exercise at the time. An attendant circumstance must divert the attention of the injured party, significantly enhance the danger of the defect, contribute to the injury, and be beyond the control of injured party. The phrase refers to all facts relating to the event, including such circumstances as time of day, lack of familiarity with the route taken, lighting conditions, and accumulation of ice. Galinari argued the “inviting nature of the water,” “other water activity” and the “lack of warnings” were circumstances contributing to his belief that the water was safe for diving.
The Court noted that while the nature of the cool water may have been inviting on a hot Fourth of July, it could not consider that to be an attendant circumstance distracting appellant from the ordinary use of care. Certainly, the Court said, inviting water did not prevent appellant from being able to discover its depth. Nor did the existence of other docks and slides, the length of the dock from which he dove, and the presence of people and canoes in the water create a visual appearance that diving from the end of the dock was safe. It was clear from this testimony that the “attendant circumstances” which Galinari asserted were not distracting him from exercising due care because he did not even notice them. These circumstances in no way prevented him from exercising the ordinary amount of care or led him to believe that the water was safe for diving.
– Tom Root